Labor drained youths' faith

Woodbine ministry disillusions Estonians

May 09, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Facing bleak lives in a struggling nation, three teen-age girls wandered into an auditorium in Estonia and quickly found themselves enchanted by an American pastor who preached devotion, discipline and love.

Soon, they joined her church and eventually followed her to Howard County, where they were promised intense Bible studies and religious training. Instead, the teen-agers say, they became indentured servants, cleaning apartments and businesses, laboring for a woman who offered hope but delivered betrayal.

"We came here to witness the people, learn more about God," said Jelena Parmanova, 18. "I was really upset about working, upset I couldn't do other stuff. It was like prison."

Parmanova is one of several Estonian youths speaking out publicly for the first time about their experiences. Last Monday, three organizers of the Woodbine church pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit visa and immigration fraud. They are accused of illegally smuggling a dozen Estonians into the United States on religious and student visas and forcing them to labor at menial jobs.

Pastor Joyce E. Perdue, 55, Assistant Pastor Robert C. Hendricks, 37, and church administrator Elizabeth Brown, 40, face possible prison terms.

Hoping to reverse their guilty pleas, the trio's lawyers are planning to appeal a judge's decision that limited how they could present evidence. The young Estonians in the United States remain in limbo. Several are hoping to stay. Others have returned to Estonia.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are questioning some on videotape, capturing details of their experiences as evidence for a trial if the defense wins the appeal.

Parmanova is living with two other 18-year-old Estonian girls with a foster family in Perry Hall. On Wednesday, they met with a reporter, describing their ordeal after joining the Word of Faith World Outreach Organization.

Their journey to Woodbine began several years ago in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a former Soviet-bloc nation on the Baltic Sea.

Twins Julia and Rita Rastas lived with their father, a chimney sweep, in a small apartment. Their mother had commited suicide. Parmanova's mother also took her life.

They were not religious, nor were their parents, but the girls were searching for something when they entered an aging auditorium several years ago. There, they found missionaries from Word of Faith holding services.

Perdue and church organizers arrived in Estonia in 1990 to deliver medical supplies and to spread their nondenominational Christian faith in the mostly Lutheran nation.

Perdue, a former hairdresser, and her followers had given up their jobs and thrown themselves into their ministry. Their zeal enticed the young Estonians, who said the Americans' happiness and exuberance offered a sharp contrast to the gloominess they saw in their people.

The teens recalled energetic sermons in the packed auditorium, where the Americans spoke in "tongues."

"When I first heard them, it was kind of weird," Julia Rastas says. "But they prayed for me."

The teen-agers attended long Sunday services, then weekday Bible study, then youth services. Several years later, Perdue was heading home, and the Estonians eagerly accepted her proposal: Join her, study the Bible and preach as students and religious workers.

They said they weren't sad about leaving cramped apartments and alcoholic fathers. "Pastor Joyce" promised meals, education, God and love -- something they were missing at home.

"Reverend Bob [Hendricks] went to speak to our dad," Rita Rastas said. "Dad didn't care. More room for him in the apartment."

They also weren't afraid to work, having done such menial jobs as stuffing ads into newspapers. Yet nothing prepared them for America.

In August 1997, they arrived and soon began cleaning apartments and a Barnes & Noble Booksellers store in Annapolis for a Word of Faith business. They also were forced to install furniture, they said.

The girls thought things would ease in September with the start of school. But they didn't. Work only got harder -- before and after class.

In a few months, Perdue moved her church to a 10,000-square-foot, $350,000 white house on a cul-de-sac in Woodbine. Nightly, the Estonians assembled in the pink living room, where Perdue or Hendricks set their schedules.

At 5 a.m., they awoke.

By 6 a.m., they were working.

By 9 a.m., they were changing clothes and getting ready for school.

Three days a week, they piled into a single classroom at the Calvary Chapel Christian Academy in Severn and were taught history and English by Perdue's husband, Don. For three weeks, they got a lesson in biology.

It was old ground for Stanislav Boroshko, now 16, the first Estonian to arrive in the United States. "I studied [those] things in sixth and seventh grade," he testified Wednesday. After class, which ended at noon, they returned to work.

Exhausted and burned out, they found that their religious training became more difficult.

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